The Cultures Endangered by Climate Change


Lena Pillars. Photograph by Maarten Takens

by Greg Downey

The Bull of Winter weakens

In 2003, after decades of working with the Viliui Sakha, indigenous horse and cattle breeders in the Vilyuy River region of northeastern Siberia, anthropologist Susan Crate began to hear the local people complain about climate change:

My own “ethnographic moment” occurred when I heard a Sakha elder recount the age-old story of Jyl Oghuha (the bull of winter). Jyl Oghuha’s legacy explains the 100o C annual temperature range of Sakha’s subarctic habitat. Sakha personify winter, the most challenging season for them, in the form of a white bull with blue spots, huge horns, and frosty breath. In early December this bull of winter arrives from the Arctic Ocean to hold temperatures at their coldest (-60o to -65o C; -76o to -85o F) for December and January. Although I had heard the story many times before, this time it had an unexpected ending… (Crate 2008: 570)

This Sakha elder, born in 1935, talked about how the bull symbolically collapsed each spring, but also its uncertain future:

The bull of winter is a legendary Sakha creature whose presence explains the turning from the frigid winter to the warming spring. The legend tells that the bull of winter, who keeps the cold in winter, loses his first horn at the end of January as the cold begins to let go to warmth; then his second horn melts off at the end of February, and finally, by the end of March, he loses his head, as spring is sure to have arrived. It seems that now with the warming, perhaps the bull of winter will no longer be. (ibid)

Crate found that the ‘softening’ of winter disrupted the Sakha way of life in a number of ways far less prosaic. The winters were warmer, bringing more rain and upsetting the haying season; familiar animals grew less common and new species migrated north; more snow fell, making hunting more difficult in winter; and when that snow thawed, water inundated their towns, fields, and countryside, rotting their houses, bogging down farming, and generally making life more difficult. Or, as a Sakha elder put it to Crate:

I have seen two ugut jil (big water years) in my lifetime. One was the big flood in 1959 — I remember canoeing down the street to our kin’s house. The other is now. The difference is that in ‘59 the water was only here for a few days and now it does not seem to be going away. (Sakha elder, 2009; in Crate 2011: 184).

(Currently, Eastern Russia is struggling with unprecedented flooding along the Chinese border, and, in July, unusual forest fires struck areas of the region that were permafrost.) As I write this, the website CO2 Now reports that the average atmospheric CO2 level for July 2013 at the Mauna Loa Observatory was 397.23 parts per million, slightly below the landmark 400+ ppm levels recorded in May. The vast majority of climate scientists now argue, not about whether we will witness anthropogenic atmospheric change, but how much and how quickly the climate will change. Will we cross potential ‘tipping points’, when feedback dynamics accelerate the pace of warming?

While climate science might be controversial with the public in the US (less so here in Australia and among scientists), the effects on human populations are more poorly understood and unpredictable, both by the public and scientists alike. Following on from Wendy Foden and colleagues’ piece in the PLOS special collection proposing a method to identify the species at greatest risk (Foden et al. 2013), I want to consider how we might identify which cultures are at greatest risk from climate change.

Will climate change threaten human cultural diversity, and if so, which groups will be pushed to the brink most quickly? Are groups like the Viliui Sakha at the greatest risk, especially as we know that climate change is already affecting the Arctic and warming may be exaggerated there? And what about island groups, threatened by sea level changes? Who will have to change most and adapt because of a shifting climate? Daniel Lende (2013: 496) has suggested that anthropologists need to put our special expertise to work in public commentary, and in the area of climate change, these human impacts seem to be one place where that expertise might be most useful.

The Sakha Republic

The Sakha Republic where the Viliui Sakha live is half of Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District, a district that covers an area almost as large as India, twice the size of Alaska. Nevertheless, fewer than one million people live there, spread thinly across the rugged landscape. The region contains the coldest spot on the planet, the Verkhoyansk Range, where the average January temperature — average — is around -50O, so cold that it doesn’t matter whether that’s Fahrenheit or Celsius.

The area that is now the Sakha Republic was first taken control by Tsarist Russia in the seventeenth century, a tax taken from the local people in furs. Many early Russian migrants to the region adopted Sakha customs. Both the Tsars and the later Communist governors exiled criminals to the region, which came to be called Yakutia; after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation recognised the Sakha Republic. The Sakha, also called Yakuts, are the largest group in the area today; since the fall of the Soviets, many of the ethnic Russian migrants have left.

Verkhoyansk Mountains, Sakha Republic. Photograph by Maarten Takens

Sakha speakers first migrated north into Siberia as reindeer hunters, mixing with and eventually assimilating the Evenki, a Tungus-speaking group that lived there nomadically. Then these nomadic groups were later assimilated or forced further north by more sedentary groups of Sakha who raised horses and practiced more intensive reindeer herding and some agriculture (for more information see Susan Crate’s excellent discussion, ‘The Legacy of the Viliui Reinfeer-Herding Complex’ at Cultural Survival). The later migrants forced those practicing the earlier, nomadic reindeer-herding way of life into the most remote and rugged pockets of the region. By the first part of the twentieth century, Crate reports, the traditional reindeer-herding lifestyle was completely replaced in the Viliui watershed, although people elsewhere in Siberia continued to practice nomadic lifestyles, following herds of reindeer.

Today the economy of the Sakha Republic relies heavily on mining: gold, tin, and especially diamonds. Almost a quarter of all diamonds in the world — virtually all of Russia’s production — comes from Sakha. The great Udachnaya pipe, a diamond deposit just outside the Arctic circle, is now the third deepest open pit mine in the world, extending down more than 600 meters.

A new project promises to build a pipeline to take advantage of the massive Chaynda gas field in Sakha, sending the gas eastward to Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast (story in the Siberia Times). The $24 billion Gazprom pipeline, which President Putin’s office says he wants developed ‘within the tightest possible timescale’, would mean that Russia would not have to sell natural gas exclusively through Europe, opening a line for direct delivery into the Pacific.

The Sakha have made the transition to the post-Soviet era remarkably well, with a robust economy and a political system that seems capable of balancing development and environmental safeguards (Crate 2003). But after successfully navigating a political thaw, will the Sakha, and other indigenous peoples of the region, fall victim to a much more literal warming?

The United Nations on indigenous people and climate change

This past month, we celebrated the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People (9 August). From 2005 to 2014, the United Nations called for ‘A Decade for Action and Dignity.’ The focus of this year’s observance is ‘Indigenous peoples building alliances: Honouring treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements’ (for more information, here’s the UN’s website). According to the UN Development Programme, the day ‘presents an opportunity to honour diverse indigenous cultures and recognize the achievements and valuable contributions of an estimated 370 million indigenous peoples.’

The UN has highlighted the widespread belief that climate change will be especially cruel to indigenous peoples:

Despite having contributed the least to GHG [green house gas], indigenous peoples are the ones most at risk from the consequences of climate change because of their dependence upon and close relationship with the environment and its resources. Although climate change is regionally specific and will be significant for indigenous peoples in many different ways, indigenous peoples in general are expected to be disproportionately affected. Indigenous communities already affected by other stresses (such as, for example, the aftermath of resettlement processes), are considered especially vulnerable. (UN 2009: 95)

The UN’s report, State of the World’s Indigenous People, goes on to cite the following specific ‘changes or even losses in the biodiversity of their environment’ for indigenous groups, that will directly threaten aspects of indigenous life:

– the traditional hunting, fishing and herding practices of indigenous peoples, not only in the Arctic, but also in other parts of the world;

– the livelihood of pastoralists worldwide;

– the traditional agricultural activities of indigenous peoples living in mountainous regions;

– the cultural and ritual practices that are not only related to specific species or specific annual cycles, but also to specific places and spiritual sites, etc.;

– the health of indigenous communities (vector-borne diseases, hunger, etc.);

– the revenues from tourism. (ibid.: 96)

For example, climate change has been linked to extreme drought in Kenya where the Maasai, pastoral peoples, find their herds shrinking and good pasture harder and harder to find. For the Kamayurá in the Xingu region of Brazil, less rain and warmer water have decimated fish stocks in their river and made cassava cultivation a hit and miss affair; children are reduced to eating ants on flatbread to stave off hunger.

The UN report touches on a number of different ecosystems where the impacts of climate change will be especially severe, singling out the Arctic:

The Arctic region is predicted to lose whole ecosystems, which will have implications for the use, protection and management of wildlife, fisheries, and forests, affecting the customary uses of culturally and economically important species and resources. Arctic indigenous communities—as well as First Nations communities in Canada—are already experiencing a decline in traditional food sources, such as ringed seal and caribou, which are mainstays of their traditional diet. Some communities are being forced to relocate because the thawing permafrost is damaging the road and building infrastructure. Throughout the region, travel is becoming dangerous and more expensive as a consequence of thinning sea ice, unpredictable freezing and thawing of rivers and lakes, and the delay in opening winter roads (roads that can be used only when the land is frozen). (ibid.: 97)

Island populations are also often pointed out as being on the sharp edge of climate change (Lazrus 2012). The award-winning film, ‘There Once Was an Island,’ focuses on a community in the Pacific at risk from a rise in the sea level. As a website for the film describes:

Takuu, a tiny atoll in Papua New Guinea, contains the last Polynesian culture of its kind.  Facing escalating climate-related impacts, including a terrifying flood, community members Teloo, Endar, and Satty, take us on an intimate journey to the core of their lives and dreams. Will they relocate to war-ravaged Bougainville – becoming environmental refugees – or fight to stay? Two visiting scientists investigate on the island, leading audience and community to a greater understanding of climate change.

Similarly, The Global Mail reported the island nation of Kiribati was likely to become uninhabitable in coming decades, not simply because the islands flood but because patterns of rainfall shift and seawater encroaches on the coastal aquifer, leaving wells saline and undrinkable.

Heather Lazrus (2012: 288) reviews a number of other cases:

Low-lying islands and coastal areas such as the Maldives; the Marshall Islands; the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, and Tuvalu; and many arctic islands such as Shishmaref… and the small islands in Nunavut… may be rendered uninhabitable as sea levels rise and freshwater resources are reduced.

Certainly, the evidence from twentieth century cases in which whole island populations were relocated suggests that the move can be terribly disruptive, the social damage lingering long after suitcases are unpacked.

Adding climate injury to cultural insult

In fact, even before average temperatures climbed or sea levels rose, indigenous groups were already at risk and have been for a while. By nearly every available measure, indigenous peoples’ distinctive lifeways and the globe’s cultural diversity are threatened, not so much by climate, but by their wealthier, more technologically advanced neighbours, who often exercise sovereignty over them.

If we take language diversity as an index of cultural distinctiveness, for example, linguist Howard Krauss (1992: 4) warned in the early 1990s that a whole range of languages were either endangered or ‘moribund,’ no longer being learned by new speakers or young people. These moribund languages, Krauss pointed out, would inevitably die with a speaker who had already been born, an individual who would someday be unable to converse in that language because there would simply be no one else to talk to:

The Eyak language of Alaska now has two aged speakers; Mandan has 6, Osage 5, Abenaki-Penobscot 20, and Iowa has 5 fluent speakers. According to counts in 1977, already 13 years ago, Coeur d’Alene had fewer than 20, Tuscarora fewer than 30, Menomini fewer than 50, Yokuts fewer than 10. On and on this sad litany goes, and by no means only for Native North America. Sirenikski Eskimo has two speakers, Ainu is perhaps extinct. Ubykh, the Northwest Caucasian language with the most consonants, 80-some, is nearly extinct, with perhaps only one remaining speaker. (ibid.)

Two decades ago, Krauss went on to estimate that 90% of the Arctic indigenous languages were ‘moribund’; 80% of the Native North American languages; 90% of Aboriginal Australian languages (ibid.: 5). Although the estimate involved a fair bit of guesswork, and we have seen some interesting evidence of ‘revivals’, Krauss suggested that 50% of all languages on earth were in danger of disappearing.

The prognosis may not be quite as grim today, but the intervening years have confirmed the overall pattern. Just recently, The Times of India reported that the country has lost 20% of its languages since 1961 — 220 languages disappeared in fifty years, with the pace accelerating. The spiffy updated Ethnologue website, based upon a more sophisticated set of categories and more precise accounting, suggests that, of the 7105 languages that they recognise globally, around 19% are ‘moribund’ or in worse shape, while another 15% are shrinking but still being taught to new users (see Ethnologue’s discussion of language status here  and UNESCO’s interactive atlas of endangered languages).

Back in 2010, I argued that the disappearance of languages was a human rights issue, not simply the inevitable by-product of cultural ‘evolution’, economic motivations, and globalisation (‘Language extinction ain’t no big thing?’ – but beware as my style of blogging has changed a lot since then). Few peoples voluntarily forsake their mother tongues; the disappearance of a language or assimilation of a culture is generally not a path strode by choice, but a lessor-of-evils choice when threatened with chronic violence, abject poverty, and marginalisation.

I’ve also written about the case of ‘uncontacted’ Indians on the border of Brazil and Peru, where Western observers sometimes assume that indigenous peoples assimilate because they seek the benefits of ‘modernization’ when, in fact, they are more commonly the victims of exploitation and violent displacement. Just this June, a group of Mashco-Piro, an isolated indigenous group in Peru that has little contact with other societies, engaged in a tense stand-off at the Las Piedras river, a tributary of the Amazon. Caught on video, they appeared to be trying to contact or barter with local Yine Indians at a ranger station. Not only have this group of the Mashco-Piro fought in previous decades with loggers, but they now find that low-flying planes are disturbing their territory in search of natural gas and oil. (Globo Brasil also released footage taken in 2011 by officials from Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, FUNAI, of the Kawahiva, also called the Rio Pardo Indians, an isolated group from Mato Grosso state.)

In 1992, Krauss pleaded with fellow scholars to do something about the loss of cultural variation, lest linguistics ‘go down in history as the only science that presided obliviously over the disappearance of 90% of the very field to which it is dedicated’ (1992: 10):

Surely, just as the extinction of any animal species diminishes our world, so does the extinction of any language. Surely we linguists know, and the general public can sense, that any language is a supreme achievement of a uniquely human collective genius, as divine and endless a mystery as a living organism. Should we mourn the loss of Eyak or Ubykh any less than the loss of the panda or California condor? (ibid.: 8)

The pace of extinction is so quick that some activists, like anthropologist and attorney David Lempert (2010), argue that our field needs to collaborate on the creation of a cultural ‘Red Book,’ analogous to the Red Book for Endangered Species. Anthropologists may fight over the theoretical consequences of reifying cultures, but the political and legal reality is that even states with laws on the books to protect cultural diversity often have no clear guidelines as to what that entails.

But treating cultures solely as fragile victims of climate change misrepresents how humans will adapt to climate change. Culture is not merely a fixed tradition, calcified ‘customs’ at risk from warming; culture is also out adaptive tool, the primary way in which our ancestors adapted to such a great range of ecological niches in the first place and we will continue to adapt into the future. And this is not the first time that indigenous groups have confronted climate change.

Culture as threatened, culture as adaptation

One important stream of research in the anthropology of climate change shows very clearly that indigenous cultures are quite resilient in the face of environmental change. Anthropologist Sarah Strauss of the University of Wyoming has cautioned that, if we only focus on cultural extinction from climate change as a threat, we may miss the role of culture in allowing people to accommodate wide variation in the environment:

People are extraordinarily resilient. Our cultures have allowed human groups to colonize the most extreme reaches of planet Earth, and no matter where we have gone, we have contended with both environmental and social change…. For this reason, I do not worry that the need to adapt to new and dramatic environmental changes (those of our own making, as well as natural occurrences like volcanoes) will drive cultures—even small island cultures—to disappear entirely.  (Strauss 2012: n.p. [2])

A number of ethnographic cases show how indigenous groups can adapt to severe climatic shifts. Crate (2008: 571), for example, points out that the Sakha adapted to a major migration northward, transforming a Turkic culture born in moderate climates to suit their new home. Kalaugher (2010) also discusses the Yamal Nenets, another group of Siberian nomads, who adapted to both climate change and industrial encroachment, including the arrival of oil and gas companies that fouled waterways and degraded their land (Survival International has a wonderful photo essay about the Yamal Nenets here.). A team led by Bruce Forbes of the University of Lapland, Finland, found:

The Nenet have responded by adjusting their migration routes and timing, avoiding disturbed and degraded areas, and developing new economic practices and social interaction, for example by trading with workers who have moved into gas villages in the area. (article here)

Northeast Science Station, Cherskiy, Sakha Republic. Photograph by David Mayer

But one of the most amazing stories about the resilience and adaptability of the peoples of the Arctic comes from Wade Davis, anthropologist and National Geographic ‘explorer in residence.’ In his wonderful TED presentation, ‘Dreams from endangered cultures,’ Davis tells a story he heard on a trip to the northern tip of Baffin Island, Canada:

…this man, Olayuk, told me a marvelous story of his grandfather. The Canadian government has not always been kind to the Inuit people, and during the 1950s, to establish our sovereignty, we forced them into settlements. This old man’s grandfather refused to go. The family, fearful for his life, took away all of his weapons, all of his tools. Now, you must understand that the Inuit did not fear the cold; they took advantage of it. The runners of their sleds were originally made of fish wrapped in caribou hide. So, this man’s grandfather was not intimidated by the Arctic night or the blizzard that was blowing. He simply slipped outside, pulled down his sealskin trousers and defecated into his hand. And as the feces began to freeze, he shaped it into the form of a blade. He put a spray of saliva on the edge of the shit knife, and as it finally froze solid, he butchered a dog with it. He skinned the dog and improvised a harness, took the ribcage of the dog and improvised a sled, harnessed up an adjacent dog, and disappeared over the ice floes, shit knife in belt. Talk about getting by with nothing.

… and there’s nothing more than I can say after ‘… and disappeared over the ice floes, shit knife in belt’ that can make this story any better…

Climate change in context

The problem for many indigenous cultures is not climate change alone or in isolation, but the potential speed of that change and how it interacts with other factors, many human-induced: introduced diseases, environmental degradation, deforestation and resource depletion, social problems such as substance abuse and domestic violence, and legal systems imposed upon them, including forced settlement and forms of property that prevent movement. As Strauss explains:

Many researchers… see climate change not as a separate problem, in fact, but rather as an intensifier, which overlays but does not transcend the rest of the challenges we face; it is therefore larger in scale and impact, perhaps, but not entirely separable from the many other environmental and cultural change problems already facing human societies. (Strauss 2012: n.p. [2])

One of the clearest examples of these intensifier effects is the way in which nomadic peoples, generally quite resilient, lose their capacity to adapt when they are prevented from moving. The Siberian Yamal Nenets makes this clear:

“We found that free access to open space has been critical for success, as each new threat has arisen, and that institutional constraints and drivers were as important as the documented ecological changes,” said Forbes. “Our findings point to concrete ways in which the Nenets can continue to coexist as their lands are increasingly fragmented by extensive natural gas production and a rapidly warming climate.” (Kalaugher 2010)

With language loss in India, it’s probably no coincidence that, ‘Most of the lost languages belonged to nomadic communities scattered across the country’ (Times of India).

In previous generations, if climate changed, nomadic groups might have migrated to follow familiar resources or adopt techniques from neighbours who had already adapted to forces novel to them. An excellent recent documentary series on the way that Australian Aboriginal people have adapted to climate change on our continent — the end of an ice age, the extinction of megafauna, wholesale climate change including desertification — is a striking example (the website for the series, First Footprints, is excellent).

Today, migration is treated by UN officials and outsiders as ‘failure to adapt’, as people who move fall under the new rubric of ‘climate refugees’ (Lazrus 2012: 293). Migration, instead of being recognised as an adaptive strategy, is treated as just another part of the diabolical problem. (Here in Australia, where refugees on boats trigger unmatched political hysteria, migration from neighbouring areas would be treated as a national security problem rather than an acceptable coping strategy.)

For the most part, the kind of migration that first brought the Viliui Sakha to northeastern Siberia is no longer possible. As the Yamal Nenets, for example, migrate with their herds of reindeer, the come across the drills, pipelines, and even the Obskaya-Bovanenkovo railway – the northern-most railway line in the world – all part of Gazprom’s ‘Yamal Megaproject.’  Endangered indigenous groups are hemmed in on all sides, surviving only in geographical niches that were not attractive to their dominant neighbours, unsuitable for farming. As Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote in The New York Times:

Throughout history, the traditional final response for indigenous cultures threatened by untenable climate conditions or political strife was to move. But today, moving is often impossible. Land surrounding tribes is now usually occupied by an expanding global population, and once-nomadic groups have often settled down, building homes and schools and even declaring statehood.

For the Kamayurá, for example, eating ants instead of fish in Brazil’s Xingu National Park, they are no longer surrounded by the vast expanse of the Amazon and other rivers where they might still fish; the park is now surrounded by ranches and farms, some of which grow sugarcane to feed Brazil’s vast ethanol industry or raise cattle to feed the world’s growing appetite for beef.

Now, some of these indigenous groups find themselves squarely in the path of massive new resource extraction projects with nowhere to go, whether that’s in northern Alberta, eastern Peru, Burma, or remnant forests in Indonesia. That is, indigenous peoples have adapted before to severe climate change; but how much latitude (literally) do these groups now have to adapt if we do not allow them to move?

In sum, indigenous people are often not directly threatened by climate change alone; rather, they are pinched between climate change and majority cultures who want Indigenous peoples’ resources while also preventing them from adapting in familiar ways. The irony is that the dynamic driving climate change is attacking them from two sides: the forests that they need, the mountains where they keep their herds, and the soil under the lands where they live are being coveted for the very industrial processes that belch excess carbon into the atmosphere.

It’s hard not to be struck by the bitter tragedy that, in exchange for the resources to which we are addicted, we offer them assimilation. If they get out of the way so that we can drill out the gas or oil under their land or take their forests, we will invite them in join in our addiction (albeit, as much poorer addicts on the fringes of our societies, if truth be told). They have had little say in the process, or in our efforts to mitigate the process. We assume that our technologies and ways of life are the only potential cure for the problems created by these very technologies and ways of life.

In 2008, for example, Warwick Baird, Director of the Native Title Unit of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, warned that the shift to an economic mode of addressing climate change abatement threatened to further sideline indigenous people:

Things are moving fast in the world of climate change policy and the urgency is only going to get greater. Yet Indigenous peoples, despite their deep engagement with the land and waters, it seems to me, have little engagement with the formulation of climate change policy little engagement in climate change negotiations ­ and little engagement in developing and applying mitigation and adaptation strategies. They have not been included. Human rights have not been at the forefront. (transcript of speech here)

The problem then is not that indigenous populations are especially fragile or unable to adapt; in fact, both human prehistory and history demonstrate that these populations are remarkably resilient. Rather, many of these populations have been pushed to the brink, forced to choose between assimilation or extinction by the unceasing demands of the majority cultures they must live along side. The danger is not that the indigenous will fall off the precipice, but rather that the flailing attempts of the resource-thirsty developed world to avoid inevitable culture change — the necessary move away from unsustainable modes of living — will push much more sustainable lifeways over the edge into the abyss first.

Piece originally published at PLOS Blogs | Creative Commons License


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